"Since 1990, and possibly even before, we have not seen such turnout," Ziad Baroud, Lebanon's interior minister, said.

"The election was a challenge that many doubted would take place. But Lebanon's political factions and the Lebanese met the challenge."

Surprising and encouraging'

Al Jazeera's Todd Baer, reporting from Beirut, said that the high turnout was "surprising and extraordinarily encouraging".

"You have the sense here that people really felt like their vote was going to count for the first time in a long time," he said.

In depth

 


 
ANALYSIS
 The battle for votes
 Lebanon-Syria ties
 Political dynasties
 Palestinian refugees

BACKGROUND

 Electoral system
 Country profile
 Country timeline

IN VIDEO

 Video: Arab Street
 Video: Family Business

INTERACT
 Your views
 Your media

It is the first time that a Lebanese election has been held on a single day rather than over a month.

Some polls have forecast a narrow victory for Hezbollah and its allies, including the Free Patriotic Movement, headed by Michel Aoun, a Christian leader and former military chief.

But as the votes were counted, Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces party, predicted that the March 14 bloc would be returned with a slim majority. 

"In my opinion, yes, March 14 ... will return as the majority," he told local LBC television.

Most analysts believe that Lebanon's complex political system will lead to a unity government including elements of the March 14 bloc, which currently holds the parliamentary majority.

The country's president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim.

The 128 seats in parliament are divided equally between Christians and Muslims.

The US, which lists Hezbollah as a "terrorist" group, has linked future aid to Lebanon to the shape and policies of the next government.

"The challenge will be to bring winners and losers together, rather than exacerbate their differences and threaten to trigger another cycle of violent confrontation," an International Crisis Group report, released before polling day, said.

Baroud said that the highest turnout had been reported in the divided Christian districts, with Kesrouan at 70 per cent and Metn, Batroun and Jbeil at 60 per cent.

Aoun is challenging Geagea's Lebanese Forces and the Phalange party led by Amin Gemayel, a former president and another member of the March 14 camp.

Christian 'kingmakers'

Al Jazeera's James Bays, reporting from Lebanon, said that the Christians appeared set to emerge as the "kingmakers".

About 3.2 million Lebanese were registered
to vote in the election [Reuters]
"To put it simply, the Christians are bitterly divided.

The Christians find themselves in the two different camps - there are Christian parties on both sides of the political divide," he said.

Christians make up nearly 40 per cent of Lebanon's 3.26 million eligible voters.

Polling day was largely peaceful with more than 50,000 soldiers and police deployed across the country.

However, a shooting was reported outside the headquarters of Future Television, which is owned by Saad al-Hariri, the head of the March 14 bloc and son of Rafiq al-Hariri, an assassinated former prime minister.

No one was injured in the shooting when a group of men opened fire from a car as it drove by.

There were also reports of brawls between rival supporters in several areas of Beirut and a shooting in Tripoli.

Democratic 'blessing'

Michel Sleiman, Lebanon's president, urged people to vote "calmly and with joy".

"Democracy is a blessing we must preserve, a blessing that distinguishes Lebanon in the Middle East," he said after voting in his home town of Amchit, north of Beirut.

In the run-up to the elections, much of the campaigning has focused on Hezbollah's military power, which is stronger than the state's security forces.

Opponents say Hezbollah's weapons undermine the state, while the group and its allies see them as crucial to defending Lebanon from Israel.

Sectarian tension brought Lebanon to the brink of civil war last year when more than 100 people were killed in violence before an agreement led to the election of Sleiman, then the army chief, as president and the formation of a national unity government.